Paul McDaniel was 14 or 15 when he took a job working for a white boss. South Carolina. In the '40s. One day, he was riding in the back of the foreman's truck. Blacks with him on the job, whites, too. A car passed. Someone threw something. Car stopped, turned around, words exchanged, a peace brokered.
"You pick out the man you think did it," the foreman told the offended driver.
The driver pointed to young Paul.
I didn't do it, Paul said.
You're fired, the foreman said.
Word got out among the crew. They fired Paul.
"Fellas started coming out of the field," McDaniel later remembered.
I'm going with him, they said.
I'm going with ... Paul.
McDaniel, who died last Sunday at 91, was a North Star. As Second Missionary Baptist preacher or county commissioner or freedom fighter, McDaniel led people out of the fields, the isolation, the pain. So many followed.
We were going with him.
"He didn't just preach sermons," said Johnny Holloway. "He was a sermon."
Outside family, no man has meant more to Holloway than McDaniel. Coming home from the war in the '60s, Holloway was hardened against religion. Then, he met McDaniel. His wife said: Go talk to our new preacher.
For the next 50 years, the two men fought white supremacy together.
"He was a real disciple of God," said Holloway, a retired TVA engineer who started our city's Operation/PUSH chapter.
McDaniel studied at Morehouse College and marched in Selma. Fought a law preventing preachers from being elected. Walked the narrow road between unapologetic truth and disarming love. Racism poisons all wells. No one drinks a clean cup.
"He faced opposition in a way that kind of made them love him," Holloway said.
Once, a group of white clergy asked McDaniel to join.
"He became the moderator," Holloway said. "Do you hear me? In the South."
McDaniel loved to sing "We Shall Overcome." One line he loved most.
Black and white together ... we shall overcome ...
"He really meant it," Eric Atkins said. "He really meant all people of all races, creeds and colors together."
Atkins now helps lead the Unity Group that McDaniel started.
"He was always trying to get people to come together. That is his hallmark," Atkins said. "He always knew that a mighty fist was more powerful than an isolated finger."
Linda Morris, who helped register some 10,000 county voters one year, remembers McDaniel helping her women's group get Black women elected.
"He was a mentor, a person that I could go into his office, sit down and cry, pray, just share and load him down with my burdens and he would always say something to uplift me," she said.
Quenston Coleman remembers McDaniel protesting outside Brainerd High.
"When they were the Rebels, and the white boys were riding around in cars throwing milk cartons with pee on us, he was standing there on the steps when students were walking out, protesting with us," Coleman said. "I liked him from then on."
How many times did McDaniel speak calm into the storm?
"Wherever he was, he was a calm, rational voice of reason that had to be respected," Coleman said.
One night, Blacks and whites were meeting. It was bad, getting worse. McDaniel stood up and ...
"He changed the tone of the meeting just by standing up — before he ever spoke a word," remembers Franklin McCallie. "I watched in amazement, being one of those who held him in awe."
"He served as what we call a Baba," said the Rev. Charlotte S. N. N. Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist. "The Baba in African tradition is the one in the community we go to, to seek guidance and seek wisdom."
Be you, fully you, McDaniels would tell Williams. But be ready to pay a price.
"He helped me to become unapologetic about who I am," she said. "I stand my ground and stand in my truth. I will forever be grateful to him for giving me that."
Funeral arrangements are unannounced. McDaniel reportedly donated his body to science.
"Just like him," one friend said. "He even gave his body away to help others."
Before COVID-19, I talked with him and wife Linda in their home.
"Do what's on your heart to do," he said. "But be ready to pay the price."
McDaniel saw something in whites we often don't see in ourselves. That day, I understood why, all his life, so many followed Paul McDaniel. I loved him and barely knew him.
Here are some of his words that day. May they remain long after his death.
— "Chattanooga does have a benevolent attitude in the community, but something still blocks us when we are getting down to being respectful of each other's ideas and ways. It is that old segregated attitude."
— "We got a lot of good people here who are silent."
— "If I felt somebody getting a bad deal, white or Black, I'd stand up for them. If we had more of that creating a community of love, concern, sharing, that would go through these barriers we put up."
— "To actually love people, you don't have to like them. You can love them by meeting their needs. Giving them the respect and concern a person would need. Be cordial. You don't have to go out together. If we would just be kind and helpful to people in need, regardless of race or what have you, and treat them the way we want to be treated, we would go a farther distance."
— "They laud me sometimes so much I get embarrassed. I'm just a weak man like others."
— "If you're not willing to suffer for what you do, you won't be of lasting benefit. Most people who make lasting contributions know suffering. Above all, you've got to be true to yourself, not for show, not for publicity. Do it because you are called to do it. You've got to have that. Too many forces will tear you down."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.